Growing population could make hurricane evacuation difficult

Growing population could make hurricane evacuation difficult

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) – "Know Your Zone" is a new concept for our area – the hurricane evacuation program started just last year.

But changing the way we do things is a good idea, because our area's population is changing too.

Traffic has become a way of life along the Grand Strand.  With the number of residents growing and the 14 million visitors that flock to our shore annually, navigating around the area is nothing short of a headache in the summer time.  When a mandatory evacuation is issued, if you think you'll be able to get away in just a few hours, you're likely wrong.  Horry County Emergency Manager Randy Webster didn't sugarcoat it when said evacuating will be a mess.

Our coast is no stranger to hurricanes and tropical storms, but our population is continuing to grow.  Hurricane Hazel hit in 1954 near Little River, killing 95 people.  The storm surge was almost 17 feet and damage was estimated to be $281 million.  Fast forward to Hurricane Hugo in 1989 that made landfall just north of Charleston with a storm surge of 20 feet, killing 21 people and causing $7 billion in damage.

"But overall, the sheer numbers and the fact that we haven't had any new roads in here in quite some time, and nothing really new on the horizon to add to evacuations, getting people out of here - the numbers are just growing astronomically high and that's a huge concern," Webster said.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates Horry County's population to be over 282,000 - over 100,000 of which are in evacuation zones.  Add tourists into the mix, and that means over 300,000 to 500,000 people will be trying to leave the area all at the same time.

"Since Hugo, Highway 22 and Highway 31 have been created, but 22 is an evacuation route, 31 is not," Webster explained. "Outside of that there's been some widening: Highway 544 and a little bit of that, but still the capacity has been maxed out on that since Hugo."

Last year the Horry County Emergency Management began its "Know Your Zone" campaign, breaking evacuation areas down into 3 zones: A, B and C.  Zone A is closest to the coast, Zone B is between Highway 17 Business and Bypass and an area west of 707, and Zone C is in areas west of the 17 Bypass that are very susceptible to flooding from the Waccamaw River and Intracoastal Waterway.

"We've asked people at town hall meetings we've been at, and people are very fixated on the category of storm, and when you start talking about 3's, 4's and 5's, they're like I'm out of here for sure, but 1's and 2's they have a tendency to want to stay behind, and that is turning into a very serious situation, because the only reason we evacuate is storm surge," Webster said. "Not the wind, and not the rain, and we can see recently events, even Cat. 1 storms, can bring in huge storm surges like Sandy last year."

They also ask you take certain evacuation routes depending on where you live.  The beach-bound lanes of Highway 501 will reverse and head inland in two different sections.  One is when 544 meets up with 501.  That will go to highway 378.  Then those who were on 544 will go onto 378 to head inland.  The second lane reversal is where Highway 22 meets 501.  At that time, all lanes of 501 will only go north all the way into Marion County where the Highway 76 and 576 split near the amphitheater.  Some viewers contacted the Storm Team upset that the wasn't a lane reversal in the Carolina Forest area, but there's a reason for that.

"There's no other lane reversals.  The challenge you have with lane reversals is you still have to get in bound traffic taken care of," Webster explained. "In Conway, you still have to get people from the Conway side to Conway hospital, beach bound.  All the traffic going out of the beach are evacuation routes… you still have to allow people to get back in - emergency vehicles, people still living in the area that are not in the evacuation zones like most of Carolina Forest, and so you still have to accommodate that."

If a mandatory evacuation was issued for just Zone A, that would take 15 hours with lane reversals, 26 hours without.  If all three zones had to be evacuated, it will take 33 hours with lane reversals and about 40 hours without them.

Webster says his worst fear when it comes to evacuating is people won't leave when they're asked and will choose to do so at the last minute and find themselves stuck on the road with rising water.   Bottom line: you need to know your zone, your evacuation route, make an evacuation kit with food water and clothing as well as important documents so when that evacuation order is issued you can hit the road hopefully before everyone else does.

Copyright 2013 WMBF News. All rights reserved.